Life after sports
Record Staff Writer
Published Sunday, May 28, 2006
When the spotlight goes off, it's not easy finding a comfort role in society
Ed Sprague went to spring training with the Texas Rangers in 2002, and when a reporter asked him what he brought to the team, Sprague was stumped.
"I couldn't think of one thing," Sprague said.
After 11 years in the major leagues, he knew it was time to leave.
He returned to Stockton, to his home, to his wife and three kids, and moved on.
"I always knew I'd be a coach, but I didn't know at what level. Little League, high school, college," he said.
Sprague, who is finishing his third season as the head coach at University of the Pacific, is one of the lucky ones. Or at the very least, a rare exception.
If throwing a touchdown in the Super Bowl, sinking a free throw with the game on the line or hitting a 95 mph fastball is tough, athletes who have excelled at such feats will tell you that not being asked to do those things anymore is even tougher.
Living your life after a career in sports is one of the hardest professions out there.
"You put everything you have into it, all you have, and when it's gone, most guys at the end of their careers are being told, 'You're no longer useful,' " said Guy McIntyre, who played guard in the NFL for 13 years, 10 of them for the 49ers.
It goes beyond being told that, though.
"The hardest thing was that my whole identity was tied up in being a volleyball player," said Pacific graduate Elaina Oden, a two-time Olympian. "When volleyball wasn't there, it was hard to make the adjustment."
She's not alone.
"My identity was always as Adrian the football player, Adrian the baseball player, Adrian the athlete," said Adrian McBride, a University of Missouri graduate who spent three years in the NFL "Since I was 10 years old, I was pushed to be the best. All of a sudden the (NFL) didn't need me. I was working in a meat factory and didn't like that. I thought it was beneath me. I was a bellman at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Columbus. That was beneath me. It was devastating to me. They were paying me to carry other people's bags."
Life in the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball means someone carrying your bags. Elite athletes are accustomed to their every need being addressed.
"The hardest part was making the transition from a really controlled environment, all the time knowing what you're going to do next," champion Olympic swimmer Brad Schumacher said. "We planned two or three years out. It was easy to focus on a goal and a result. When I no longer had that obvious goal, the difficult part was figuring out what my new goal was going to be."
He swam his last competitive race at the 2004 Olympic trials. He played professional water polo in Australia and Greece. He also completed his master's degree in business administration at Pacific and teamed up with former teammate Wolf Wigo to form Kap7 Water Polo, a company that creates and sells water polo products and consults on new pool construction.
Oden eventually earned a master's degree, too, and works for New York Life as a financial consultant. Getting there from the disappointed 29-year-old who'd endured knee surgeries and cortisone injections only to see her team finish seventh in Atlanta after winning bronze in Barcelona was a long journey.
"The Olympics were on, and I couldn't watch,'' she said. "There was too much angst watching them try to do what I tried and failed to do. It was hard to watch them lose."
A weekend at a Landmark Forum, a motivational program, inspired her to put her frustration with the past behind her and focus on her future.
It's led her to financial planning, where 90 percent of her clients are athletes and former athletes.
"Eventually, I'd like to have nothing but athletes, to help them," Oden said.
Helping athletes is a path many former players have taken.
McIntyre works for the 49ers as the director of player
development, implementing an NFL program begun in the '90s whose purpose is to prepare rookies for their careers and life after football.
McIntyre is in his third year with the program, so he
doesn't know if the information provided on continuing education, financial education, offseason
internships and personal assistance has helped.
"Very few guys have come back and said it's helped," McIntyre said.
One person who doesn't expect it to help is agent Bob Lamonte. "The NFL program is a Band-Aid solution,"
A history teacher for 25 years, Lamonte used his education background to develop a program of his own to prepare athletes for their post-career lives.
|Pacific baseball coach Ed Sprague says he always knew he wanted to coach after his professional career ended. He just wasn’t sure at what level. Sprague is in his third year with the Tigers|
It began with a personality test to determine interests and included a step-by-step program to prepare an athlete to move into that job upon retirement.
The Toronto Blue Jays were one of the few professional teams to pay for the program for its players. It's how Lamonte met Sprague.
"Ed Sprague's a model for what to do when you retire," Lamonte said.
Sprague's model was his dad, Ed Sprague Sr., who played in the days when athletes worked in the offseason.
Those players were better prepared to move on to life after sports.
"You would try to become a spokesperson, or a (public relations) person for a brewery or soft drink firm," said R.C. "Alley Oop" Owens, who played pro football from 1957-64. "You'd beat the bushes looking for one of those jobs."
Owens worked as a recreation leader in Menlo Park in the offseason, then through his college football coach he landed a job with J.C. Penney giving motivational speeches across the country to youngsters. He earned more in the offseason than he earned playing football.
Athletes have always moved into roles as broadcasters, but those jobs are precious.
Some spend their retirement years giving back. Some enter politics.
Others serve as cautionary tales. From former Astros pitcher J.R. Richard, who was found homeless and sleeping under a bridge, to Dwight Gooden's recent return to prison for drug abuse, there are plenty of bad examples.
"Studies show 70 to 80 percent are bankrupt and/or divorced within five years of the end of their career," McBride said.
He never fell to those depths, but it took several years of meat-cutting, bag-carrying and employment recruiting before McBride found his niche.
"I was watching the NCAA basketball tournament in 2002, and they kept showing this NCAA commercial about 360,000 athletes all going pro in something other than sports," McBride said. "It was a great commercial, but extremely misleading to former athletes. The perception is they'll ride off into the sunset like any average student."
He and his wife, a former All-American gymnast, knew better.
They began a nonprofit program called Life After Sports and set up shop in the athletic department at Missouri.
Like Lamonte, they begin with assessment tests to determine athletes' interests. From there, they prepare them to be non-athletes.
McBride has run golf and tennis events, as well as dinners, to train them in proper decorum. He provides lessons on business etiquette and résumé writing. He's worked to get them internships, geared around their sports schedules.
"Slowly but surely, we're making a difference," McBride said.
He hopes eventually to spread his program across the country.
Women may have an easier time making the transition than men.
"For women, there aren't a lot of opportunities (in pro sports)," said former Pacific point guard Selena Ho, who dreamed of playing professionally but knew it was a long shot. She has stayed in the game as a coach, currently as an assistant at Oregon.
"They generally have the desire, but they are more honest with themselves, have a more honest assessment of what their capabilities are and can be."
Not so much with men, McBride said.
"Especially in the big sports - basketball, football, baseball - guys are here for one reason, to get to the NFL, NBA or major leagues. When I was playing 20 years ago, I don't remember talking about going to the NFL. That was something you kept to yourself."
Now, it's more of an expectation than a dream, which can make the disappointment of not making it even more devastating.
Helping athletes make the transition is now the work of McBride and McIntyre, among others, who understand that the toughest job an athlete will ever have is not being one anymore.